What do we do when we just can’t take anymore? Some of us completely unplug our minds, others explode into a state of hysteria; some of us bang our heads against walls, others run away to the sanctuary of the bar to buy a stiff drink, whilst the tee-total amongst us drink the equivalent strength of an alcohol beverage in coffee. Whether you fall into any of these categories is largely irrelevant, for they all share the same common trait, which I term ‘the emotional tipping point’.
Emotional Arcs of Fire
Any out of the ordinary reaction to an event is as a result of the tug-of-war between our rational thought processes and our emotional brain (as featured in my earlier blog, The Green Cross Code). The ability to contain our emotions very much depends on us as individuals, the given circumstance, and what hooks us in. Obviously there is no hard and fast rule to this emotional turbulence, nor is there any explanation available at the time of a flash-point that calls upon us to switch our arc of fire away from the battle in which we have erroneously engaged. If this were the case, we would not, as sovereign nations, require the service of a defence force as there would be nobody inclined to attack us!
The human condition within its toolkit has a mechanism for conflict. Generally, it can only be thwarted after there is a demonstrable period of reflection and compromise aimed at seeking reconciliation and eventual peace. However which way this armistice is founded is ostensibly academic; the case in point here is that a cease-fire is a reactive act as opposed to a pro-active one.
‘Steering-away’ from militaristic analogies for the time being (only my Paratrooper comrades will identify this as an oxymoron), a workplace culture is a well-known arena for conflict to fester. We have already established that our ability to prevent conflict is often outstripped by our propensity to engage in it. And that hindsight is a wonderful thing when we reflect on our experiences of a seemingly avoidable encounter; but all things being equal, what if we could utilise a pro-active strategy when we engage in a potentially toxic conversation? Well, there is a glimmer of hope if we understand how to become reflexive.
Reflexivity: an Explanation
Reflexivity is the continuous process of self-reflection that people engage in to generate awareness about their actions, feelings and perceptions;[i] the key word in this definition is ‘continuous’, for it is the continuity of reflection that is likely to prevent us from taking the hook that will lead us into the minefield of a tumultuous conversation. Reflexivity requires us to make a connection between our personal thoughts and the social-context of the situation. When we react spontaneously, these two instances are often far removed; awareness about the way we act, feel and perceive things equips us to extinguish the flames that are about to burn the bridge.
This concept is by no means foolproof; I’ve lost count of the times I wished I hadn’t reacted the way I did when the trip-wire of my inner-beast had been well and truly sprung; the anxiety and regret that I experience post event often causes me to lament at my earlier incandescence. This is all part of the human condition and sometimes can’t be remedied; however, it can be treated.
Reflexivity in Action
In order to understand reflexivity subjectively, we need to gain an understanding of our reflexive attributes[ii]. There are essentially four areas, two of which are positive indicators and two negative.
- Vocal reflexivity – Vocal reflexivity is the ability for one to maintain self-awareness about the way they act, feel and perceive in any given social situation with the addition of ‘checking’ in with others vocally, and becoming explicit about their thoughts. By articulating personal concerns about the way one expresses themselves, one hopes to gain a greater insight into the social situation with which they are faced.
- Silent reflexivity – The same process applies, except that the individual does not vocalise their thoughts; they are kept within.
- Moral reflexivity – This band of reflexivity is similar to that of silent reflexivity, however the mental activity is more expansive. The morally reflexive individual will battle with the concept of who they should be in any given social context, regardless of whether they are being true to their own beliefs and values. They do this at the expense of the social encounter, as they are unable to show their true colours.
- Fractured reflexivity – Although conscious about the way they act, feel and perceive, a person with fractured reflexivity will use their awareness to exacerbate their anxiety about the social encounter, therefore rendering themselves unable to prevent the conflict they are about to step into.
Nothing can prevent conflict from occurring. The human trait to allow emotion to subvert rational thinking is a biological certainty at frequent points during our lifetime. The inevitability of such encounters in the workplace is reflective of the high-octane environment people operate in, where anxieties about job-security, salaries and kudos promote a competitive showground where stress is palpable.
The need to reflect is obvious, but this is very much a reactive exploit. Reflexivity is different; it is a state of continuous self-awareness on how we act, feel and perceive a social encounter—it’s a form of pro-active reflection.
Any organisation will clearly see the cultural benefits of engendering positive reflexivity, however, be very aware that not everybody gets the best out of reflexivity; it can be a double-edged sword. Whatever way you look at it, the minefield of social interaction is best negotiated by placing flags forward of the route as opposed to behind.
What do you think? Can you add to this discussion? I welcome your comments.
[i] International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, December 2014, Vol 21, No 12, Reflexivity in research: Promoting rigour, reliability and validity in qualitative research.
[ii] International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 2013 Vol 8, A Response to Commentaries Simon Jenkins Carnegie Faculty of Sport and Education Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, LS6 3QT, UK